Ross Howard drove west from his family home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1980 looking for a warmer place to live.
Admittedly, he missed the mark when he rolled into La Barge, Wyoming. He was 18 years old, broke and had no prospects. He slept on a campground picnic table at Fontenelle Reservoir for two weeks before things began to fall into place.
Howard had one thing going for him — he knew how to weld. He’d also done some logging and enjoyed fixing cars, but didn’t have much else working in his favor besides grit, determination and a unique, creative mind.
In the 42 years since he landed in Lincoln County, Howard has become a successful entrepreneur — he owns Ross Welding — married a local rancher’s daughter (Celeste) and raised nine children (five boys and four girls).
Some Of Everything
Calling his welding business unique is an understatement, like saying the Pacific Ocean might be a good place to hide a submarine.
The name Ross Welding doesn’t come close to describing the work actually done there. But it’s hard to fit “welding, creative fabricating, logging, movie set construction, log home and barn construction, salvaging and equipment trading” on a sign.
Spread over about 10 acres on the south end of La Barge, Howard has an impressive collection of old cars, trucks, construction and logging equipment, Jet Skis, snowmobiles, a snowcat, boats, semitractors and trailers, a sawmill, lumber oil field tanks, scrap iron, scrap wood and much more.
Junk Is A Four-Letter Word
Nothing on that 10 acres is new, but don’t call any of it junk.
That term doesn’t exist in Howard’s vocabulary. The “J word,” is only used reluctantly. Howard prefers “resources.” And that’s because he knows he can make something useful out of nearly everything out there.
A 1970s Mercedes four-door with flat tires and broken windows? It probably has a diesel engine that he can repurpose.
A 1970s Chevy square body pickup? “People are always looking for parts for those,” he said.
“I’m a pack rat,” Howard said. “People give me stuff and I like to trade. I see value in things that most people don’t see. My kids get mad at me sometimes.”
“Frustrated sometimes, but not mad,” said his son, Benjamin Howard.
You don’t have to look very hard to see that Howard can back up his aversion for “the J word.”
More Than Props
Every year he builds things he can enter in the La Barge Fourth of July Parade. He has a flying saucer, a yellow submarine, a Star Wars X-wing fighter, a pirate ship, a Batmobile, a Flintstone's car made out of a log, a pink dune buggy and a train.
His family dressed up like The Beatles with the group’s iconic yellow submarine; like Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swan for their pirate ship; and Ken and Barbie cruised main street in the pink dune buggy.
Howard’s welding and fabricating skills were seen by a larger audience when he built a steel ship for the 2011 science fiction film “Age of the Dragons” starring Danny Glover. The ship was made of repurposed oil field tanks.
He’s also fabricated crossbows that appeared in the direct-to-video five-part fantasy series “Mythica: A Quest for Heroes.”
Circling back to what must have been some soul-searching time sleeping on that picnic table at Fontenelle, Howard’s break came when he landed a job as an oil field roustabout. After a couple of years there he went to work for a refinery that operated in La Barge, then he opened an auto repair business.
He also worked in a silver mine in Silverton, Colorado, and built a locomotive that was used to pull silver ore out of a mine in Nevada.
After concluding that being his own boss was the best fit, Howard started building gooseneck and dual-wheeled trailers and later took up logging. He picked up small jobs selling firewood and ran a small sawmill at first. He felled all the trees with a chainsaw and used a 1969 John Deere cable skidder to move the trees.
Over the years the operation has grown into a large-scale, modern logging enterprise.
They hardly use a chain saw anymore. Trees are taken down with a feller-buncher, delimbed, cut to length and gathered up with a grapple skidder and a forwarder. He sources mostly beetle-killed and burned trees from federal and state lands in both Lincoln and Sublette counties. Some of the jobs brought in upward of 300 semi-loads of saw logs.
He sells rough-cut lumber and firewood, and produces shavings for livestock bedding with whatever is left over.
Most recently Howard bought a shop that makes Swedish coped logs, then put them on a jig where they are bolted and screwed together to make wall panels for cabins and barns.
The jig is made from an old double-wide trailer they stripped and repurposed. Building walls on the jig and standing them up is easier than working from scaffolding one log at a time, he said.
Howard also repurposed a metal lathe that is now used to turn 9-inch diameter, 12-foot-long logs making them smooth and round. The lathe also cuts copes down the length of each log to make them fit together snugly.
Fabrication on a second lathe that will turn 24-inch diameter, 30-foot-long logs is underway.
His sons Charles and Benjamin handle most of the logging and construction work.
‘I Just Started Building Stuff’
Asked how he gained so much practical knowledge about welding and building, Howard said when something breaks, he just tears it apart, figures out what’s wrong and gets it fixed.
“I just started building stuff and didn’t look back,” he said. “Everything you build gives you experience to help build something else.”
He learned to weld in his high school shop class and learned the logging business from his parents, who ran a business in Michigan. By the time he turned 14 he was building dune buggies and other motorized toys.
The mechanic experience came mostly through trial, error and curiosity about what makes things work.
“By working together we’ve gotten good at designing and making stuff work,” he said. “You either figure it out or you can’t use it anymore. You have to have the confidence to try. Nobody is going to do it for you.”